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Battling for independence: Small states stake their claim

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Gulf crisis that pits a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar has emerged about more than a regional spat. It is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia.

It also has parallels with efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Iraq or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own that is likely to mushroom with Kurds in Syria and others likely to put forward similar demands.

The battle for the ability to make independent choices is easier for existing small states like Qatar, the UAE and Singapore that are fending off varying degrees of political and economic pressure from Big Brothers. Groups like the Catalans and the Iraqi Kurds grapple with a more fundamental obstacle: resistance by nation states like Spain and Iraq to cede economically valuable territory and an international community whose Pavlov reflex is to oppose secession.

Political scientists Alberto Alesino and Enrico Spolaore argued in a book published more than a decade ago, The Size of Nations, that both large and small states have to make cost/benefit trade-offs that determine their ability to provide populations with public goods and services and carve out their place in an international order. The integrity of larger states like Iraq and Spain whose size means that their populations are more heterogeneous is called into question by groups who feel that the state does not serve their interests and needs. Small states are either more homogenous or like Singapore find it easier to cater to different segments of a heterogeneous population but need to manoeuvre more nimbly internationally to ensure their independence.

The struggle of smaller states to escape the yoke of a regional behemoth and various groups to carve out small states of their own may have gained pace because of a realization that the benefits of being big have decreased and an expectation articulated by political scientists Sverrir Steinsson and Baldur Thorallsson that big states will grow increasingly smaller. “Thankfully for small states, it has never been as easy being small as it is in the current international system with its unprecedented degree of peace, economic openness and institutionalization,” Steinsson and Thorallsson said in a recent study entitled The Small-State Survival Guide to Foreign Policy Success.

The Gulf crisis fits the mould of smaller states seeking to carve out their place in the regional and international order, but also breaks it. At stake in the Gulf is more than just the ability of small states to chart their own course. No doubt, that is one aspect of Qatar’s refusal to bow to demands by the UAE-Saudi-led alliance that it radically alter its foreign and security policies that embraces political change for others and align them with those of others in the region.

Yet, the root of the dispute goes beyond that. The Gulf crisis is a clash of diametrically opposed strategies for the survival of autocratic rule fought in ways that threaten independence of choice of others as well as regional stability. It is a battle between two small states with massive war chests garnered from energy exports that have megalomaniac ambitions to shape a swath of land that stretches from North and East Africa into Asia in their own mould. To achieve their goals the UAE and Qatar act not as small states but as big powers, using the kind of tools big powers use: financial muscle, support of opposition forces to stimulate or engineer regime change, foreign military bases, military coups, covert wars, and cyberwar. Buried in their megalomania is a naïve belief that the consequences of their actions will not come to haunt them.

As a result, the parameters of debate sparked by the Gulf crisis about the place of small states in the international order is different when it comes to the ambitions of Qatar and the UAE as opposed to countries like Singapore who rely more on soft power, opt to fly more under the radar, and stick more to strategies generally associated with small state efforts to ensure their independence of choice.

What Singapore, Qatar and the UAE have in common however, is that their quest to jealously guard their ability to chart their own course is driven by fear. Singapore’s fear, unlike that of Qatar and the UAE that face very different demographic challenges involving citizenries that account for only a small percentage of the population, is grounded in race riots surrounding its birth, the perception of living in a volatile neighbourhood, and concern resulting from the fallout of convoluted transitions that have wracked the Middle East and North Africa and fuelled religiously-inspired militancy.

While all three states are in some ways corporations, Singapore in contrast to Qatar and the UAE, has institutionalized its system of government to a far greater degree than the Gulf states in terms of institutions, the rule of law, and checks and balances irrespective of its warts. Qatar has so far ignored the opportunity offered it by the wave of unprecedented nationalism unleashed by the Gulf crisis as Qataris rallied around the ruling Al Thani family that accounts for 20 percent of the citizenry in a nation of 300,000 nationals. As a result, debate in Singapore focuses on survival as an independent state rather than survival of a ruling family. In Singapore, the debate about what it can and should do to stand up for its interests is public; in Qatar and the UAE far more repressive restrictions on freedom of expression stymie debate or drive it into clandestinity.

Similarly, Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies in which education, in contrast to Singapore, is designed to ensure that citizens have marketable skills and can interact globally rather than develop the skills of critical thinking that could result in criticism of their regimes. While there is no public debate in either Gulf state about governance, Singapore’s transition away from the Lee family’s dominance and to a post-Lee generation is one that is cushioned by discussion and expression of aspirations.

Both Qatar and the UAE have glimmering and bold skylines that rival that of Singapore. But beyond the trappings of modernity, neither are states that empower their citizens. The limitations of modernity are evident. Criticism after Qatar won the 2022 World Cup hosting rights of its controversial labour regime that governs the lives of migrant workers, a majority of the country’s population, did not resonate among Qataris, largely because of the country’s demographic deficit. In fact, Qataris protested in 2009, when some households hired Saudis as maids, yet never raised their voice about the widespread abuse of Asian maids. Saudi unlike Asian maids were too close to home. If Saudis could be reduced to the status of a maid, so could one day Qataris pampered by a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Qatar and the UAE share building blocks of soft power creation and the manufacturing of national identity some of which are also employed by Singapore. They include foreign military bases; world class airlines that service global hubs; museums that both attract tourism and manufacture a national heritage; high profile investments in blue chips, real estate and the arts, sports and the ambition of becoming centres of excellence in multiple fields.

While political Islam plays a less important role in Singapore’s management of its heterogeneity, Qatar and the UAE have adopted radically different approaches even though both have developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted. This, however, is where the communalities in their survival strategies stop. Whereas Qatar embraced support of political Islam, the UAE has opted to suppress it. Nonetheless, both states project their approach as part of their effort to garner soft power.

As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 popular Arab revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead, that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces that were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress. Qatar did so in the naive belief that it could encourage transition everywhere else without the waves of change washing up on its own shores.

What puts the Gulf crisis in a bracket of its own in the discussion about the place of small states in the international pecking order is the fact underlying the crisis are issues that go far beyond the debate. One root cause of the crisis is Qatar and the UAE’s radically different definitions of terrorism that is enabled by the international community’s inability to agree on what does and does not constitute terrorism and anchor that agreement in international law. The failure to do so fuels differences in perceptions of national security threats, undermines governments’ ability to effectively combat political violence, and allows them to shy away from advancing greater accountability and transparency, and ensuring protection of basic human rights.

As a result, the Gulf crisis has a pot blaming the kettle quality. It pits autocracies against one another. None of the protagonists advocates a more liberal system of government for its own people. Their differences are rooted in their histories of independence and concepts of national security that are defined by geography and differing threat perceptions.

Qatar, the UAE and Singapore are all unique in their own ways. In many ways, they don’t fit the mould of the world’s average small state. Yet, they all offer lessons for other small states or territories aspiring to join the international community as independent countries. Singapore, unlike Qatar and the UAE has established itself as a model of good governance and of a small state that turned the liability of having no resources but its human capital into an asset. The UAE has so far succeeded in positioning itself as the small state most capable of punching above its weight. Qatar has become the example of a small state capable of resisting heavy external pressure. Ultimately, however, Singapore may prove to have a more sustainable survival strategy by grounding it in institutions, performance and human capital rather than the wielding of financial muscle in an effort to shape the world around it in its own mould.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Israeli contrasts: Likud’s favoured soccer teams veers left as Bibi turns further right

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The contrast could not be starker. As Israel plays a dangerous game of US politics by restricting or banning visits by controversial Democratic members of Congress to seemingly please President Donald J. Trump’s prejudiced electoral instincts, the owner of a notorious Jerusalem soccer club draws a line in the sand in confronting his racist fan base.

The contrast takes on added significance as prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu woes Israel’s far-right in advance of elections on September 17 given that storied club Beitar Jerusalem has long been seen as a stronghold for his Likud party.

Mr. Netanyahu’s barring of Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar was as much a response to Mr. Trump’s tweeted suggestion that they should not be allowed to visit Israel as it was catering to his right-wing base that includes Beitar’s fans.

Beitar is the only Israeli squad to have never hired a Palestinian player. Its fans, famous for their racist slogans and bullying tactics, have made life impossible for the few Muslim players that the club contracted in its history.

Messrs. Netanyahu and Moshe Hogeg, the Beitar owner and tech entrepreneur who founded social mobile photo and video sharing website Mobli and crypto transactions platform Sirin Labs, are both treading on slippery ground.

Mr. Netanyahu, who initially raised out of respect for the US Congress no objection to the planned visit by Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar, has ensured that Israel for the first time in decades can no longer be sure of bi-partisan support in the Congress and beyond and is likely to become a partisan issue in the run-up to next year’s US presidential election.

His pandering to Mr. Trump sparked rare criticism from the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s most powerful and influential lobby in the United States even though AIPAC agrees that Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Ilham support the Boycott, Diversification and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel.

“We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel first hand,” AIPAC tweeted.

A breakdown of bi-partisan support for Israel may not be what Mr. Netanyahu wants, but it may be, in a twist of irony, what Israel needs. It would spark a debate in the United States with a potential fallout in Israel about whether Mr. Netanyahu’s annexationist policy and hard-line approach towards Palestinian aspirations serves Israel’s longer-term best interests.

Israel’s toughening stand was evident on Tuesday when police broke up an annual soccer tournament among Palestinian families in East Jerusalem on assertions that it was sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, which is barred from organizing events in the city. The tournament’s organizer denied any association with the Authority.

In a dismissive statement, Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan’s office scoffed: “We’re talking about scofflaws who lie and blame the agency that enforces the law when they know full well that the Palestinian Authority is involved in the event that Minister Erdan ordered halted.”

The incident was emblematic of an environment that prompted columnist and scholar Peter Beinart, writing in The Forward, a more than 100-year old, left-wing Jewish weekly, to argue that “the United States has a national interest in ensuring that Israel does not make permanent its brutal occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

By taking on La Familia, a militant Beitar Jerusalem fan group that has driven the club’s discriminatory policy, Mr. Hogeg is going not only against Mr. Netanyahu’s policies that emphasize Israeli Jewish nationalism at the expense of the rights of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as well as those subject to occupation.

He is also challenging a global trend spearheaded by civilizational leaders like Indian prime minister Narendra Modi who, two weeks after depriving Kashmiri Muslims of their autonomy, is planning to build detention camps for millions of predominantly Muslim Indians suspected of being foreign migrants, Victor Orban who envisions a Muslim-free Hungary, and Xi Jinping who has launched in China’s troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history

The degree of polarization and alienation that civilizational policies like those of Messrs Netanyahu, Modi, Xi and Orban is highlighted by the fact that Mr. Hogeg’s battle with his fans is over a name.

Ali Mohammed is Beitar Jerusalem’s latest acquisition. The only Muslim thing about him is his name. Mr. Mohammed is a Nigerian Christian.

That wasn’t good enough for the fans who demand that he change his name. During Mr. Mohammed’s first training session fans chanted “Mohamed is dead” and “Ali is dead.”

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Hogeg seems unwilling to back down. He has threatened to sue the fans for tarnishing Beitar’s already battered reputation and demand up to US$500,000 in damages. Lawyers for Mr. Hogeg have written to fans demanding an apology.

“They are very good fans; they are very loyal. They love the club and what it represents … but they’re racist and that’s a big problem,” Mr. Hogeg said.

Convinced that the militants are a minority that imposes its will on the majority of Beitar fans, Mr. Hogeg takes the high road at a time that the likes of him threaten to become an endangered species.

“I was surprised to find that Mohamed is not Muslim, but I don’t care. Why should it matter? He’s a very good player. As long as the player that comes respects the city, respects what he represents, respects Israel, can help the team and wants to play then the door will be open. If those radical fans will fight against it, they will lose. They will simply lose,” Mr. Hogeg said.

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“Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen.”

Eric Zuesse

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On August 17th, an anonymous German intelligence analyst who has perhaps the world’s best track-record of publicly identifying and announcing historical turning-points, and who is therefore also a great investigative journalist regarding international relations (especially military matters, which are his specialty) headlined at his “Moon of Alabama” blog, “Long Range Attack On Saudi Oil Field Ends War On Yemen”, and he opened:

Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen. It has no defenses against new weapons the Houthis in Yemen acquired. These weapons threaten the Saudis economic lifelines. This today was the decisive attack:

Drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked a massive oil and gas field deep inside Saudi Arabia’s sprawling desert on Saturday, causing what the kingdom described as a “limited fire” in the second such recent attack on its crucial energy industry.  …

The Saudi acknowledgement of the attack came hours after Yahia Sarie, a military spokesman for the Houthis, issued a video statement claiming the rebels launched 10 bomb-laden drones targeting the field in their “biggest-ever” operation. He threatened more attacks would be coming. 

New drones and missiles displayed in July 2019 by Yemen’s Houthi-allied armed forces

Today’s attack is a check-mate move against the Saudis. Shaybah is some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from Houthi-controlled territory. There are many more important economic targets within that range.  …

The attack conclusively demonstrates that the most important assets of the Saudis are now under threat. This economic threat comes on top of a seven percent budget deficit the IMF predicts for Saudi Arabia. Further Saudi bombing against the Houthi will now have very significant additional cost that might even endanger the viability of the Saudi state. The Houthi have clown prince Mohammad bin Salman by the balls and can squeeze those at will.

He went on to say that the drones aren’t from Iran but are copies from Iran’s, “assembled in Yemen with the help of Hizbullah experts from Lebanon.”

He has been predicting for a long time that this war couldn’t be won by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS). In the present report, he says:

The war on Yemen that MbS started in March 2015 long proved to be unwinnable. Now it is definitely lost. Neither the U.S. nor the Europeans will come to the Saudis help. There are no technological means to reasonably protect against such attacks. Poor Yemen defeated rich Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi side will have to agree to political peace negotiations. The Yemeni demand for reparation payments will be eye watering. But the Saudis will have no alternative but to cough up whatever the Houthi demand.

The UAE was smart to pull out of Yemen during the last months.

If he is correct (and I have never yet found a prediction from him turn out to have been wrong), then this will be an enormous blow to the foreign markets for U.S.-made weapons, since the Sauds are the world’s largest foreign purchasers of those, and have spent profusely on them — and also on U.S. personnel to train their soldiers how to use them. So (and this is my prediction, not his), August 19th might be a good time to sell short U.S. armament-makers such as Lockheed Martin.

However: his prediction that “the Saudis will have no alternative but to cough up whatever the Houthi demand” seems to me to be the first one from him that could turn out to have been wrong. If the Sauds have perpetrated, say, $200 billion of physical damage to Yemen, but refuse to pay more than $100 billion in reparations, and the Housis then hit and take out a major Saudi oil well, isn’t it possible that the Sauds would stand firm? But if they do, then mightn’t it be wrong to say, at the present time, that: “Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen.”? He has gone out on limbs before, and I can’t yet think of any that broke under him. Maybe this one will be the first? I wouldn’t bet on that. But this one seems to me to be a particularly long limb. We’ll see!

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The message behind the release of Iranian oil tanker

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Gibraltar court ordered the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 to be released. The tanker was seized by the British Royal Marines about a month ago. 

This verdict was the ending of an elaborate game designed by John Bolton National Security Advisor of the United States and Mike Pompeo, carried out by the Britain government. 

With seizing the tanker, Bolton was trying to put psychological and political pressures on Iran and force other countries to form a consensus against Iran, but he couldn’t fulfill any of these goals. 

Iran’s firm, logical and wise answer to the seizure of Grace 1 (like making solid legal arguments) and the seriousness of our country’s armed forces in giving a proper response to Britain’s contemptuous act, made the White House lose the lead on reaching its ends. 

Washington imagined that the seizure of Grace 1 will become Trump’s winning card against Iran, but the release of the tanker (despite disagreement of the U.S.) became another failure for the White House in dealing with Iran.  

Obviously, London was also a total loser in this game. It is worth noting that U.S. was so persistent about keeping the oil tanker in custody that John Bolton traveled to London and insisted on British officials to continue the seizure of the ship. Their failure, however, clearly shows that the White House and its traditional ally, Britain, have lost a big part of their power in their relations with Iran. 

Clearly, the illegal seizure of the Iranian oil tanker by Britain proceeded by the seizure of a British tanker by Iran and the following interactions between the two countries is not the whole story and there is more to it that will be revealed in coming days. 

What we know for sure is that London has to pay for its recent anti-Iran plot in order to satisfy Washington; the smallest of these consequences was that Britain lost some of its legal credibility in international arena as it illegally captured an Iranian oil tanker. 

The order of the Gibraltarian court revealed that London had no legal right to seize the Iranian oil tanker and nobody can defend this unlawful action. Surely, Iran will take all necessary legal actions to further pursue the matter.  

In this situation, the Islamic Republic of Iran is firm on its position that it doesn’t have to follow the sanctions imposed by the European Union on other countries (including Syria). 

No entity can undermine this argument as it is based on legal terms; therefore, Iran will keep supporting Syrian nation and government to fight terrorism. This is the strategic policy of the Islamic Republic and will not be changed under the pressure or influence of any other third country. 

Finally, it should be noted that the release of Grace 1 oil tanker was not only a legal and political failure for Washington and London and their allies but it was also a strategic failure. Undoubtedly, the vast consequences of this failure will be revealed in near future. 

From our partner Tehran Times

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